Ragnar Kjartansson, Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for Marriage, 2011/2014. Performance view.

Ragnar Kjartansson, Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for Marriage, 2011/2014. Performance view.

Ragnar Kjartansson

Ragnar Kjartansson, Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for Marriage, 2011/2014. Performance view.

Ragnar Kjartansson is only forty, but the immense span of media and sheer number of works in this midcareer survey suggest an eccentric figure who has been around for a long while. His work is strikingly contemporary in an old-fashioned way. The show—which blurred many boundaries—never spilled over from performance into spectacle. Its subtlety lay in the comfortable tension between its vitality and the dark northern European humor underlying it. You were never sure whether to laugh or cry, or both—or neither.

Kjartansson conjures a world in which the viewer is often a voyeur, on the periphery of a commune-like crew of folk making music or art or love, for whom there is no separation between work and leisure, always with a beer in hand, engaged in a kind of utopian togetherness, unconcerned with race or gender or class or war. Here, we peer into Kjartansson’s world through paintings, sketchbooks from 2004 through 2016, and video works such as the series “Me and My Mother,” 2000–, which shows his mom spitting on him once every five years, and the renowned nine-screen installation The Visitors, 2012, among many other works. But perhaps most intriguing were the show’s two live performances, which, breaking the fourth wall, drew consistently large audiences.

Second Movement, 2016, a new, site-specific outdoor work, named after the andante movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 21, K., featured two women in Edwardian costumes rowing a boat on the Barbican lake while locked in a three-hour-long kiss. One of the performers, Greek actress Emmanuela Lia, described the hours to me as a gift, more meditation than endurance, “a place of safety because someone is kissing you,” an act of empathy. It was with this same empathy that the audience, allowed into a long moment of intimacy, viewed the performance. But could that empathy stay the moment of a kiss, that wonder and reverie, or did the duration of the performance flatten its eroticism, normalizing the queering that was in play? And was the piece really about love at all, or rather the scene’s absurd juxtaposition with the Brutalist architecture of the Barbican Estate, the medieval church of St. Giles-Without-Cripplegate on the other side of the lake, and the neat sign above: CITY OF LONDON SCHOOL FOR GIRLS? It was probably all of these things. The performance has its roots in a watercolor, not in the show, titled Helena Bonham Carter Kissing Helena Bonham Carter, 2016, after the actress who once played Queen Elizabeth II. In this way, it is a self-aware piece that jabs at performance itself, at England even. It is an act of both narcissism and erasure.

Inside, the second live performance, Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage, 2011/2014, permeated the whole space. In it, ten quintessentially good-looking white men lounged in pajamas, underwear, or the like, strumming a single refrain of a ten-part polyphonic score for eight to eleven hours a day. The melody was melancholic, but the lyrics, if one can call the intermittent words that were sung that, were silly in a charming way. The bathos was heightened by the looming, large-scale projection of a looped excerpt from the first Icelandic feature film, Morðsaga (Murder Story, 1977), in which the artist’s parents were actors; the clip shows them playing a housewife and a plumber in a passionate embrace on the kitchen floor. (In real life, Kjartansson’s parents later divorced.)

Both performances turn time on its head. In Second Movement, we oscillate between a bygone era of Romanticism and a future in which same-sex intimacies in the public realm will be normal, all the while anchored to the present via the physical duration of the kiss itself. In Take Me Here, the sense of hominess—beer bottles strewn across the gallery, along with a mattress and crumpled sheets—and the music’s slouching harmonies lulled time into listlessness: The performers appeared as if in a trance, while in reality they were bound by the beat, the minutes and hours ticking away with every chord. But how long can this timelessness stay timely?

Himali Singh Soin